"Virtuous Pedophiles" just passed the 10th anniversary of its founding. As one of two co-founders (with Nick Devin) I've been there from the beginning. I haven't been as active in taking new initiatives or joining public debates as I was in the early days. But I've been listening for the entire 10 years, and I'll pause here to give one aspect of the big picture as I see it. What are the key groups of pedophiles, and how should we divide the public in terms of their reactions to those groups?
Some just hate us at a gut level for feeling attraction to children. End of conversation.
Some of them might be a bit more introspective and view it as a moral wrong independent of consequences in the world. This is the view we might expect from the social conservatives who value the moral foundation of "Purity", in Jonathan Haidt's original formulation of Moral Foundations Theory. Sexual attraction to children is wrong, whether anyone else even finds out about it.
For many others, their hatred of pedophiles and pedophilia is linked to harm -- to connections from those attractions to harm to real people in the real world. Such people might still have gut-level anger against pedophiles, but if they cannot find any harm, then they can't comfortably support concrete punishments.
So the clearest harm is that perpetrated by pedophiles directly against children in face-to-face abuse. Just about everyone agrees that is a crime and deserves punishment (including a great many pedophiles).
A very interesting subgroup of pedophiles is what I would call the "pro-legalization pedophiles", sometimes referred to as "pro-contact". "NAMBLA" is probably the most recognizable name among such organizations. They believe that fundamentally, there would be nothing wrong with many adult-child sexual relationships if they were legal and were not heavily stigmatized by society. I would say most of the public thinks this is a grave misreading of the nature of children in general, and view pedophiles holding such views as dangerous. If they think children can engage in sexual relationships without any sort of inherent harm, the way lies open for them to have such relationships today if they feel sure they won't get caught -- and still view themselves as morally righteous. It also leaves the public uneasy about just how accurately they would perceive friendships with children today -- could we trust that what they might call a non-sexual act really is non-sexual? Most of the public disapproves very strongly of such pedophiles, seeing real harm today and the potential for more harm in the future if their vision came to pass.
In fact, before the advent of Virtuous Pedophiles 10 years ago, this group was just about the only one that came to public attention. Virtuous Pedophiles was the start of a stream of organizations of pedophiles who swear they have done nothing sexual with children and never will, and think the societal prohibitions against it are reasonable and justified. This is a notably different set of beliefs, and the public has noticed the difference.
This is the place to mention one set of social liberals who accept celibate pedophiles. Sometimes they will declare their tolerance for us after a mere sentence or two. They believe that there is no harm to be found in whatever sexual kinks or preferences a person might have, as long as they are entirely between consenting adults. Differences in sexual preferences are to be tolerated if not celebrated. Since there are no real children in celibate pedophiles' sexual behaviors, celibate pedophiles should be included. Such liberals also tend to believe people's assertions unless they have strong reason not to, and a sexual desire for children does not disqualify us.
But in contrast to them is the larger part of society. Some time within thie past 10 years they have been presented with pedophiles who claim to be now and forever celibate regarding children. Mostly the public mistrusts such pedophiles and thinks they deserve punishment.
For those who think pedophilia is a choice, sympathy is limited in all respects. Surely any decent human being would choose to be attracted to something else, and do away with their disgusting attraction to children. But a great deal of the public seems to accept that it is not a choice, as this line of argument rarely takes center stage when debating the issue.
One broad claim is that you can't believe pedophiles who say they do not abuse children. Either they have already and are simply lying, or they will in the future because pedophiles always do. Clinicians and scientists may find this a natural conclusion because all the pedophiles they meet have in fact offended. It is very tempting to generalize that everyone in group x has property y if all the people you've met from group x have property y. But there is a huge selection bias here. Typically, the only way that clinicians and scientists ever learn of a person's pedophilic attraction is if they are caught committing a crime. Non-offending pedophile have the very strongest incentives to keep their condition secret, which reinforces this bias and the incorrect conclusion that they do not exist. If all the people in group x who lack property y are carefully hidden from you, your conclusion is worthless. Anonymity provided by the internet is what has enabled such pedophiles to come forward in large numbers and challenge the previous conclusion.
Among the criminals, there is an ability to make some distinctions because there are two broad sorts of crimes pedophile can be caught for. One is hands-on abuse, and the other is possession of illegal images of children. In the infamous 'Butner' study, it was claimed that some very high percentage of pedophiles caught for image offenses admitted they had also offended hands-on against children. This supported the basic narrative that every pedophile we've ever seen has offended against children directly, or they will.
More recent studies have reached a consensus that the Butner study was an outlier and this is not true. Some large percentage of offenders caught with images have never abused a child face to face. So we have different groups of pedophiles to consider. There is one implication of this I hear rarely discussed. If some possess illegal images but do not abuse children, some abuse children but possess no images, and others do both, it strongly suggests a fourth group who do nothing illegal at all, and who remain almost completely invisible to everyone, lay people and professionals alike.
For "image offenses" let's restrict ourselves to those who passively consume images, and set aside those who make, post, sell, buy or trade, to keep things simpler.
Here is a class of people correctly diagnosed as pedophiles who are entertaining sexual fantasies about children. The public mood says, They must be punished! More sober minds feel that punishment requires harm, and they can find a few candidates. One is that pedophiles who look at such images will eventually not be satisfied with images and will offend against children. The evidence for this has the same gigantic selection bias problem as before. Police interview pedophiles who have molested children. Quite a few will admit to having looked at illegal images beforehand. They might even try to make themselves seem less culpable by saying the images made them do it. But there is only correlation here, not causation. And we have no representation at all of those who looked at images, but never got caught either for that or molesting a child. This is akin to finding that many heroin users tried marijuana before moving on to heroin, and labeling marijuana a cause of heroin abuse.
Another candidate for harm is that by looking at such images, they are encouraging the production of more. This is a very weak link in the modern environment when passive viewers do not pay.
The third proposal is that the children in the images are humiliated and harmed when they realize that pedophiles are getting pleasure out of their abuse. There may be some truth here, but if so, it is highly diluted harm. The 10,000th viewer of an image is judged as culpable as the first. This concern for the victims of the making of child pornography seems to have developed into an issue of great concern to some non-offending pedophiles themselves over the past 10 years. Some anti-abuse organizations have also come to focus on it. But from what I can tell this is more a concern of specialized groups of insiders than the public at large.
As far as I can tell, the public at large doesn't really care very much about victims in child pornography.
One piece of evidence is anecdotal, but I suspect will ring true to many. If someone admits in social media to being a pedophile, a frequent retort is, "They ought to check his computer". They could be thinking, "Perhaps he has images of children doing sexual things for the pleasure of adults, which makes him guilty -- BUT, if the images are only of bathing suits or the smiling faces of girl dressed in everyday clothing, that would be OK with me." To me this seems very unlikely. What they are thinking is that there might be images on that computer that support his sexual fantasies about children, however innocent they may be in and of themselves, and that he is just as deserving of condemnation if it is only the more innocent images that are involved.
A more firm line of evidence is that the laws are not written to take account of this distinction. Laws penalize viewing of images where the children are not identifiable, or where they are computer-generated without any real children involved at all. The laws penalize cartoons of children in sexual situations. More and more they penalize the possession of child sex dolls. And while there is some measure of protection for fictional written material in the US, in the rest of the English-speaking West entirely fictional accounts of sexual activity involving children are illegal. There are also pictures that might show children in ambiguous situations, such as clothing ads, nudist site advertisements, or family pictures involving some nudity. Sometimes, these are defined as illegal when in the possession of a pedophile and it seems plausible that they might use them for purposes of sexual gratification, though they are legal when possessed by other people.
What is really driving the public reaction? It is that they seek to punish pedophiles on the basis of any evidence that they are entertaining sexual fantasies about children, even if the children exist only in the minds of the pedophiles. This might just be a gut-level reaction, or it might include some of those I considered at the very start -- those who feel it's wrong independent of any consequences. Such people do not need harm to feel justified in punishing pedophiles, but they do sensibly require evidence that they are in fact pedophiles.
There are pesky laws and notions of liberty limiting what sorts of acts people can be punished for, and they sometimes get in the way of the public doing all it would like. But the desire is there: if a pedophile seems to be entertaining a sexual fantasy about a child, punish him!
Are there any pedophiles left they might feel sympathy for? Suppose there are pedophiles who themselves condemn such fantasies and do their very best never to entertain them. Some of the public will accept them. They are essentially viewed as mental patients. Based on their inborn pedophilia, they have an urge to fantasize sexually about children, and they can be grudgingly accepted if the main activity of their lives is doing their very best never to indulge in such fantasies.
Instead of summarizing the major groups identified in this long post, I'll try to identify groups where we might make progress, where we might have more chance of changing some hearts and minds to be more accepting of us.
Among the "live and let live" social liberals, some are OK with fantasies of consensual activity, but would condemn rape play. Perhaps they could be convinced that a fantasy that would be abuse if carried out in real life is typically not a fantasy of abuse. This is usually true of pedophiles fantasies involving children.
Perhaps some who really make the effort to put themselves in a pedophile's shoes would see that for many, the explosive possibility of child sex abuse can be truly and forever deemed impossible. From that quieter position of someone who poses no risks to others, they might see how bleak it would be to have no prospect all life long of love or satisfying sex. Perhaps they would also see that gentle fantasies of sex with children would be an understandable reaction to that situation, and one that they can tolerate even if they'd much prefer not to think about it themselves.
All improvement would be helped enormously if more and more people knew of a celibate pedophile in their life, and knew all of the things that made them a complicated person, fundamentally likeable, and deserving of the best life they can get, like anyone else. This certainly was a key step along the road to acceptance of gays and lesbians.